What is Generative Research?

Essential methods and best practices to help you understand the technique some people call ‘user testing++’

Do you know your customers? And we mean really know them as people? Their likes and dislikes, what they do in their daily lives, and the problems they face? 

Chances are, you could probably learn more about them—especially if you want to create boundary-breaking online experiences.

Here's the thing. User research (UX) is often viewed as a tactical endeavor. An organization wants to create or augment a product, so they call in the UX research team to run usability tests that validate their ideas. 

In taking this approach, companies are missing out on a huge opportunity and leaving valuable customer insights on the table. 

You see, the secret to designing truly exceptional products lies in understanding users' intrinsic motivations, behaviors and pain points. A usability test—or any product-centric test for that matter—can only uncover how users interact with your product, not how they feel in general. 

To win big, you don’t just want to think about how usable your solution is, you want to consider how you can create something that’s useful to users.  


The way to do it? Generative research.  

What is generative research?

Generative research is a form of user research that empowers you with a deep understanding of who your customers are as people, not just users. With this type of research, you'll build an in-depth knowledge of your customers' day-to-day challenges, helping you to generate insight-led ideas that inform your company's direction. 

Importantly, generative research methods are not product-focused, meaning you won't test a hypothesis or gather feedback on a prototype. Instead, you'll find out about your customers' identities, with the aim of uncovering unmet needs you can fulfill. 

Naturally, this makes generative studies perfect for the very beginning of the product-development process. You can use them to drive your product direction, generate new ideas and hone in on innovative market opportunities. 

However, UX teams often forget that customer discovery has use cases at every stage of the product development lifecycle. You can, for example, use it tactically to support marketing, product, and sales teams with enhanced insights about target customers. 

After all, in today's lightning-fast-paced world, customer expectations, needs, and problems are constantly changing. We can always learn a little more about who our customers are and strive to stay at the forefront of innovation. 

Why is generative research important?

Generative research helps organizations move from being product-centric to user-centric. By uncovering rich insights about customer opinions, motivations, and behaviors, UX teams can design better products that solve real-world problems for users. 

How long does generative research take?

The length of your generative research project will depend on the research method you choose. Generally speaking, projects can take anywhere from 3 - 6 weeks. With platforms like UserZoom, organizations can speed up the research process by automating cumbersome tasks like writing transcripts and gathering insights.

Generative research vs evaluative research

While generative research helps you discover opportunities for customer-centric solutions, evaluative research is much more product-centric. In these studies, you test a solution or design with real users to gather their feedback. The primary aim is to determine if your solution works as it's supposed to and meets users' expectations. 

You should conduct evaluative research throughout the product development lifecycle, incorporating it iteratively to continuously refine the user experience, making it as excellent as possible. 

Although they're widely different in their goals, generative and evaluative research go hand in hand. Using both methodologies will help you build a truly exceptional experience for your customers. Focus on generative research to find the problems you need to solve, and then use evaluative research to ensure your solving these problems well. 

Why is generative research essential in the design and product development process?

The shiniest, coolest new product will completely flop if customers don't find it valuable. Too often, though, we see organizations take this, frankly, dangerous approach. They're product-centric, looking at research as a way to inform product decisions, rather than realizing that research should inform the direction of the product itself.

Generative research enables you to break down this barrier. By understanding more about target customers' lives and challenges, you can find out what they really need and build solutions that help them - and experience soaring growth as a result! 

Sure, you may have a foundational idea of your customers' likes and dislikes, but to really know them - their motivations, goals, fears, hopes, and more - generative research is invaluable. 

The more you understand why people behave and act the way they do, the more insights you'll gain into what they need. In fact, a great generative research project can help you uncover unimagined insights into your customers, expanding your knowledge and supercharging your product impact. 

With so much to be gained from a generative approach, it's no wonder that, according to Nielsen Norman Group, 83% of organizations that carried out generative research on their last project said it was successful, compared to just half that didn't. 

Ultimately, by putting in the time to truly understand users, you'll find innovative avenues far beyond customer personas, enabling you to: 

  • Architect an informed vision for your product
  • Make product decisions with confidence 
  • Improve customer empathy
  • Create valuable solutions that wow your users 
  • Boost the bottom line for the long term

Generative research methods for UX insights

There are a few ways to conduct generative research, which we'll look at in more detail below. Depending on your research goals and the project scope, you may wish to focus on one or more of these methods. 

User interviews

In a user interview, you will meet with multiple participants one-on-one, either remotely or in person. During the study, you’ll ask roughly 5-10 open-ended questions that encourage the participant to share relevant stories, opinions, and experiences about a topic or problem.  

Following these interviews, you'll have a wealth of qualitative information about your users, rich with insights you can harness to generate product ideas and solutions.  

Diary studies

A diary study enables you to collect qualitative data about user behaviors, habits, and experiences over a period of time. While surveys and interviews capture user perceptions during a moment in time, diary studies are longitudinal, meaning you can attain a more in-depth view of your users. 

During a diary study, you'll ask participants to log their thoughts and feelings over a defined time period. To level up this research, you could incorporate video logging, enabling you to analyze observable behavior that words alone can't capture.  

At the end of the study, you can analyze the findings to uncover trends in your customers' long-term behavior, attitudes, motivations and habits.

Ethnography studies

Ethnographies are a field study technique in which you speak with and observe participants' social interactions, behaviors, and perceptions as they perform tasks in their natural habit - such as at home or in the office. 

These studies help you build empathy with users, enabling you to better understand the context of their daily lives and why they behave the way they do. Armed with this information, you can uncover potential problems and, then, solutions that address customer needs.

Example questions when using the generative research method

Now you know the main types of generative research methods, the natural next question is: what to ask participants? As we've already noted, open-ended questions are crucial to ascertaining the qualitative feedback you need. 

You want to spark a dialogue with your participants. The right questions will help you uncover their attitudes, stories and motivations. 

Here are some example questions to get you started. 

  • Tell me about the last time that you…
  • Please explain why you…
  • Talk me through what happened when…
  • Walk me through how you felt after… 

Best practices for conducting generative research

As with any UX project, to conduct great generative research, you're going to need a plan of action. And we've done the hard work for you! Here's a step-by-step walkthrough to bring generative research to life in your organization. 

Step one: Find the opportunity 

When a UX research ask lands on your desk, you'll need to figure out if generative or evaluative research is the best way to go. The beginning of product development tends to be the most obvious opportunity for generative studies, but, as we've noted, this isn't always the case.

A quick trick to help you determine what research fits best is to look for keywords within the request. Phrases around learning, discovery, exploring, and understanding hint that generative research could be the right approach. 

If that's the case, then it's onto step two! 

Step two: Create your research plan 

Your research plan is your guide-rails for the project, including things like your timeline, objectives, and overall goals. To start with, it can be helpful to frame your plan around a problem statement in a quick workshop with your stakeholders. Doing this will ensure you're all aligned and help you stay on track.

Problem-statement formed, you can then start to look at the more granular details of your project: choosing a methodology, writing your interview questions, and recurring participants. 

Step three: Conduct your research!

Now, you're ready for the fun part: conducting your generative research using one of the methodologies we mentioned above. If you're going down the user interview route, we've written a handy guide on conducting in-depth interviews with everything you need to know. 

At this point, we also want to give ourselves a little shameless plug. For all generative studies - in fact, for any study you want to run - the UserZoom platform has your back. 

Our platform makes it super easy to set up a range of studies, including moderated interviews, field studies, and card sorting. 

Using the power of data analytics and automation, UserZoom automatically gathers insights about participant behaviors, motivations, and behaviors, so you can effortlessly uncover the generative insights you need to create exceptional, user-centric experiences. 

Step four: Analyze your findings 

Once your study - or studies - are complete, it’s time to analyze the results. Manually crawling through washes of data and video clips can be pretty cumbersome. 

But with the right tools by your side, you can fast-forward through the lengthy process of transcribing interviews (UserZoom, for example, does that for you!) and quickly discover relevant trends and patterns. 

From there, get your solutions-focused cap on. Consider conducting analysis activities like:

  • Creating affinity diagrams to uncover the most common customer pain points 
  • Hosting "how might we" brainstorming sessions in which you and your colleagues propose different ideas for your users' everyday problems 

Step five: Present your insights 

Last but definitely not least, it's time to present your findings to stakeholders. We recommend holding an in-person meeting of about 30 minutes, where you talk your colleagues through the results, why they matter and facilitate a dialogue around next steps.

If you're presenting to executives, remember to focus on the business value of your proposals. Speak the language of ROI, and you'll be sure to see many intrigued faces in the room. 

Wrapping up

Ultimately, if you're yet to embark on a generative research voyage, now is the time to start. Whether you've been tasked with designing a new product or improving a current one, gaining a holistic understanding of your customers is a surefire way to create solutions people love. 

Ready to take the next step? Discover how UserZoom can supercharge generative research in your organization. 

Automate and scale your moderated user interviews

Quickly collect, analyze, and share video insights with purpose-built live interview software for moderated user research.